Doing the family grocery shopping is a chore that Paul Van Overbeke, 34, doesn’t mind. In fact, he likes it.

Even after spending a full day around food, Van Overbeke, a line cook at Meritage in St. Paul, is content to stroll the aisles at Cub Foods in the evening with his 1-year-old daughter, Betsy.

“My wife is a nurse practitioner and we work odd hours,” he said. “She doesn’t shop or cook, but she likes what I come up with.”

Not long ago, a guy in a grocery store would have been a gag. The sitcom staple of the bumbling dad who buys too much of the wrong stuff has been replaced by a growing number of savvy male shoppers.

A 2012 survey from the media agency BPN found that 40 percent of men identify as their family’s primary grocery shopper.

It’s enough of a trend to attract the attention of Phil Lempert, who writes and consults as the Supermarket Guru. “I pick the top 10 food trends every year, and male presence in the grocery made my list for 2013,” he said.

“It’s a game changer.”

 

 

Even before the Great Recession, single guys, stay-at-home dads and men who work from home were taking their place in the checkout line. But when the economic downturn took a disproportionate toll on men, more took up the household task.

Meet Mr. Mom

“Mr. Mom is the norm,” said Woody Hunt, store manager at Rainbow in St. Louis Park.

Hunt, who’s been in the grocery business for more than 30 years, marvels at how the customer base has changed. “What once occurred occasionally we see all day every day,” he said. “It’s a 50-50 split.”

Both Hunt and Lempert said that men don’t shop the way women do, partly because they are less likely to have grown up accompanying their mother on weekly grocery runs.

“Men don’t like to shop, they like to buy,” said Susan Moores, a dietitian and consultant to Kowalski’s. “They want to find the target and move on, see something and strike.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that men are less likely to bring a grocery list, which makes them more susceptible to impulse purchases than their female counterparts, said Kevin Coupe, retail analyst for the website Morning News Beat.

Moores agrees. She regularly sees male shoppers responding to “baby barkers,” the industry name for the small portable refrigerated cases often positioned near the front of a store. And Rainbow’s $6 meal deal (which includes a hot entree and two sides) has been a particular hit with male customers seeking a ready-made dinner, Hunt said.

But it’s a mistake to think men can’t — or don’t — cook. A survey commissioned by Kraft Foods that was carried in the February issue of Progressive Grocer found that 96 percent of dads claim to cook once a week. Baby barkers, Moores points out, are typically stocked with meal components — all the ingredients for tacos or pot roast, for example — and a recipe card.

That may reflect the chang of image that cooking has undergone: It’s no longer considered “women’s work.”

“The Food Network turned cooking into a spectator sport and opened men’s eyes to see it as manly,” said Moores.

New family dynamics

More men in the grocery-store aisles may also be a sign of how families have changed.

Gen X’ers and millennials are more likely to regard marriage as an all-hands-on deck proposition. Because both partners work, the traditional division of labor is no longer along male/female lines.

“There’s been an ungendering of household roles,” said Kate Muhl, consumer strategist at Iconoculture, a Minneapolis-based market research firm. “Gender has little to do with who does what, and the younger the couple, the more that’s true.”

Coupe agreed.

“It’s not ‘Ozzie and Harriet,’ it’s ‘Modern Family,’ ” he said. “In a lot of households, no one knows how to cook, but men are less likely to ask for help. Stores that invest in helping them, with sampling and education, will be better positioned.”

Lempert said that grocery stores are making changes to appeal to men “as novice shoppers, not stupid shoppers.”

He suggests that stores offer tours and label-reading classes for men, or “highlight products with health benefits for men, like how lycopene in canned tomatoes prevents prostate cancer,” he said.

One New York store made a major play for male shoppers by stocking a “man aisle,” with hot sauce, batteries, charcoal, chips and beef jerky. And while other retailers have contemplated adding such a section, Moores thinks the experiment won’t get much traction.

“The caveman pitch ignores guys who hit the salad bar or come in for fresh sushi,” she said. “A man aisle is a risk; it can offend them.”

Because of that risk, many stores are adopting strategies that are so subtle that customers might not notice: The industry has always used feminine pronouns when addressing customers, often with language geared at mothers.

“Now we go with gender-neutral terms,” Moores said. “The way to appeal to guys is to no longer overtly cater to women.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.